A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi. Edited and with an Introduction by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Translation, Transliteration, and Glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8047-7166-5
Reviewed for Musica Judaica Online Reviews by Kathleen Wiens
A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica presents the personal diary of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi (1820-1903) in English translation and Ladino transliteration from the original in soletreo (Hebrew script of Ottoman Ladino dialect). Penned starting in 1881, the autobiographical account incorporates event descriptions and commentary on Jewish community life in Salonica (now Thessaloniki, Greece). Sa’adi’s motivations for writing his memoirs included a desire to record customs and events for future generations, and to voice his personal concerns and hopes for Jewish life in Salonica. Sa’adi’s primary occupations were as an editor and print-maker, but he was also respected within the Jewish community and city as a singer and composer of songs for synagogue and special occasions. It is this second occupation that makes A Jewish Voice a valuable resource for readers with interest in music and Jewish life.
A Jewish Voice is divided into three main parts: a 47-page Editors’ Introduction, the English translation of Sa’adi’s diary, and a transliteration of the diary into Romanized Ladino text. (Facsimiles of the original hand-written manuscript are accessible online via the publisher’s website.) Sa’adi divided the diary into 42 chapters, some of which were further divided into event-specific or thematically-based sections. The editors have added numeric symbols beside chapter and section headings to allow cross-reference with the online soletreo manuscript, while also providing introductory notes on dialect, pronunciation, translation, transliteration, and explanations of in-text references (weight, currencies, measurements). An extensive glossary of Ladino, Turkish and Hebrew terms and a list of works referenced complete the edition.
The editors’ Introduction contextualizes events and ideas mentioned by Sa’adi. Rodrigue and Stein present Ottoman Salonica in the late 19th century as a space of cultural transformation and fluidity. By addressing dimensions of Jewish commercial, social, and religious activities in the city (and when relevant across the Empire) the editors portray Jewish life as porous, changing based on direct or oblique interaction between Jews, Christians and Muslims; between Jews in Salonica and Jews in other locations; and locally between groups of Jewish immigrants from diverse locations (Livorno/Leghorn, Holland, the Balkans, Central and East Europe). One two-page passage, for example, describes synagogue musical activity (the domain in which Sa’adi was active) and shared repertoire between Jewish and Islamic liturgical musicians. In other cases, Ottoman tanzimat reforms of the mid 19th century attempted to re-organize and modernize life across the Empire; global political and trade networks brought wealth, goods, people and ideas from abroad; the circulation of print-media stimulated intellectual discourse (Sa’adi was a direct participant in Jewish publications); and Europe-based Jewish organizations desired to “westernize” or “Europeanize” Salonican Jews by improving communication routes and introducing secular education (a movement that Sa’adi supported). Amid what Rodrigue and Stein depict as integrated cultural practices between Jews and other religious communities and between diverse Jewish groups, they also present ways in which members of the Jewish community encouraged traditionalism and monitored behavior, for example by requiring that community members adhere to the decisions of rabbinical courts, and by limiting education to Talmud Tora studies under rabbinical leaders (the author’s education predated the establishment of Alliance schools).
Sa’adi’s diary comes alive in this context. His prose ranges from description (“The Earthquake of 1828” and“Clothing of Men, Women, and Maidens”) to social commentary, to angry rants against traditionalist community leaders (“The Fear of Fanaticism”). Music is the central topic of three sections: a discussion of “Turkish music,” a description of a visit by the Sultan, and the start of Sa’adi’s autobiography (the final section of the diary). These sections provide musical details, situate music as a part of everyday life, and serve as outlets for Sa’adi’s personal complaints or loyalties. We learn details about Sa’adi’s activities as a singer and composer: he explains his inspiration and compositional process, specifies his choice of makam (Turkish musical mode) in some cases, and offers a few details about instruments and singers. “The Aversion to Turkish Music” (Chapter 7) describes the actions of a Jewish religious leader (characterized by Sa’adi as a “hypochondriac”) who hated the Turkish language and music seemingly because they symbolized “outsider” values and therefore non-Jewish and non-virtuous behavior. Sa’adi uses the leader’s attempt to ban “Turkish music” from the synagogue to expose the man’s ignorance of his own Jewish culture; the story concludes by one musician pointing out to the ignorant Rabbi that almost all synagogue music qualifies as (what the Rabbi defined as) Turkish music. “The Visit of His Majesty Sultan Abdul Medjid [1839-61]” (Chapter 21) describes the music that Sa’adi composed for the occasion and the children’s choir he was charged to direct. Again, Sa’adi’s account imparts both musical details and non-musical experiences: he describes musical and non-musical protocol in great detail, as well his grievance about insufficient pay allotted to him by community leaders after the visit. The diary closes with an autobiographical account (Chapter 25) in which the author includes a brief sketch of how he came to practice music, his music education, and how he and his fellow students and teachers found balance for musical and non-musical activity in every-day life. Sa’adi’s total output, he leads us to believe, encompassed compositions using both Ladino and Hebrew texts (either his own or of other renowned poets), a range of makams, and musical forms typical of Jewish/Ottoman composition and performance: obligatory service songs, piyyuts and pizmons, fasils, pesrevs, taksims, bestes, semais, and romanzas. Three texts for special compositions are included in the diary and are valuable examples of popular song forms of the day (odes and acrostics).
The diary also includes a number of brief music-related episodes that the author uses to argue for widespread ignorance among the local Jewish authorities. In one scenario, a Jewish authority, unable to sleep because of a violin playing at a nearby party, declared the instrument forbidden because it was “an imitation of the gentiles.” In a second scenario under the heading “Our Cruel Teachers,” a short description of how Talmud Tora students were taught to read and sing weekly Torah portions segues to an exposé of abuse towards students by educators. Sa’adi claims that corruption and ignorance among educators continued due to a lack of recourse for abused students, and ultimately resulted in his withdrawal from formal education.
Sa’adi’s personal biases, revealed throughout the narrative, contribute to a nuanced understanding of both daily life and extraordinary events in Salonica. His prose discloses a range of emotional states: Sa’adi describes many moments of humor, empathy, anger, and deep reflection. His account exposes hurtful experiences of excommunication, personal issues with local Jewish authorities, unabashed pride as an Ottoman citizen, and support for Western-Europeanizing “philanthropic” activity. For readers with interest in music and Jewish life or music and Ottoman life, this book is a rare resource in that it gives a first-hand account of music embedded within a complex social context (as elucidated by Sa’adi and by Rodrigue and Stein). As a nuanced and vibrant account of urban life just prior to the Empire’s disintegration, this edition brings a fresh perspective on the role of music in individual, Jewish communal, and Ottoman identities.
Kathleen Wiens, Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona